American Heritage Book Selection: The Body Snatchers

It was February 15, 1788, a Friday morning, in the offices of the New York Daily Advertiser at 28 Hanover Square in New York City. Francis Quids, the paper’s printer and editor, had just received a letter from a reader who asked that the letter be published. Because New York was small, extending only as far north as Chambers Street and containing only thirty thousand people, almost everyone knew what was going on in it. Still, the letter was shocking —not in the sense that it told Mr. Childs something he did not know about the city, but because it declared openly what was being discussed privately in tavern, home, and coffeehouse.

Mr. Childs decided to publish the letter. Whether he sensed the importance of what he was doing, or was merely anxious to be the first to establish in print the existence of the controversy, he set off a chain of events that was to involve New York, the country in general, and the medical profession in particular, for the next half century.

Mr. Printer [the letter began], The repositories of the dead have been held in a manner sacred, in all ages, and almost in all countries. It is a shame, that they should be so very scandalously dealt with, as I have been informed they are in this City. It is said that few blacks are buried, whose bodies are permitted to remain in the grave. And, that even enclosed burying-grounds, belonging to Churches, have been robbed of their dead: That swine have been seen devouring the entrails and flesh of women … that human flesh has been taken up along the docks, sewed up in bags; and that this horrid practice is pursued to make a merchandize of human bones, more than for the purpose of improvement in Anatomy. … If a law was passed, prohibiting the bodies of any other than Criminals from being dissected, unless by particular desire of the dying … for the benefit of mankind, a stop might be put to the horrid practice here; and the minds of a very great number of my fellow-liberated, or still enslaved Blacks, quieted. By publishing this, you will greatly oblige both them, and your very humble servant.

The letter was signed “Humanio.”

Twelve days before this letter appeared, the free and enslaved Negroes in the city had petitioned the Common Council to prevent the desecration of their graveyard, but the Common Council apparently intended to do nothing about it. Although the bodies of poor whites had been stolen as well, the churchyards, where citizens of substance were buried, had been left unmolested. As one citizen, who called himself “a strong advocate for science,” put it: “I rather believe that the only subjects procured for dissection, are productions of Africa … and those too, who have … been transmitted to gaols … for … burglary and other capital crimes; and if those characters are the only subjects of dissection, surely no person can object.”

The only qualified medical school in the city at that time was part of Columbia College, which occupied a three-story stone building just two and a half blocks uptown from St. Paul’s Chapel at what is now Park Place. It had an anatomical theatre, where Dr. Charles McKnight of the medical faculty lectured in anatomy. Dr. McKnight, who had been a senior surgeon in the American Army of the Revolution, was progressive to the point of being ahead of his time. He had saved many lives by performing operations that later became accepted surgical procedures.

Two doctors who were not affiliated with Columbia, Richard Bayley and his protégé, Wright Post, gave private lectures at the otherwise unused New York Hospital building (vacant since the British had housed soldiers in it during the Revolution). It was not unusual in those days for surgeons to give private instruction in anatomy, both to college students and to doctors’ working apprentices. Dr. Bayley was a highly skilled surgeon who that very month, though antiseptics were unknown and the only anesthetics in use were opium and whiskey, extracted a bladder stone of 2½ ounces from a man fifty-eight years old, and another weighing no less than 7½ ounces from a man sixty-eight years old. He of all surgeons in America would have agreed with his colleague in London, Dr. Charles Bell, who claimed that the legal supply of bodies was inadequate. “Unless there are a succession of bloody murders, not three subjects are dissected in a year,” Dr. Bell said.